1. The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
I first read The Handmaids Tale almost a decade ago, in my fifth year at secondary school, in English class. As with any book you are being forced to read I grew bored of it quickly. I also think that at 15 years old I was not really old enough to understand and appreciate the themes in this intense and frightening book. I have read it again since and this year watched the television adaption as well, which was fantastic. The Handmaids tale is a dystopian novel depicting a society where women are mostly barren and the ones that are not (the titular handmaids) are given to powerful couples to procreate with the husbands and give birth to a child. The most terrifying thing about this book is that in todays world it does not necessarily seem completely out of the realm of possibility. The main character in this book, named Offred, has almost no power over herself or her body and yet she continually shows strength through perseverance and determination. The Handmaids Tale is a feminist classic and it deserves that accolade.
2. The War on Women by Sue Lloyd-Roberts
This is the only non-fiction book on this list and it is on here because it is a book which completely focusses on the many injustices women are forced to endure all over the world. Each chapter is an exploration of women in different parts of the world and the horrors so many have had to endure. Unfortunately the author, Sue Lloyd-Roberts, died just as she was completing this book after a battle with leukaemia. Her death is a great loss to journalism as her determination to uncover the stories of women in even the most dangerous places on earth. She was such a powerful woman and so many of the women whose stories she told are incredibly brave and powerful too. It is not an easy read, the subjects explored in this book are frankly horrific but it is such a necessary and important book.
3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Little women is the touching tale of the March family. It is the story of four sisters: Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth and their childhood and lives. It is a book very much of its time and yet not, because of the individuality of each of the sisters and because the focus is on them and their relationship and not merely on their romantic lives. Jo is a feminist in a time when this was not a popular choice, she eschews the traditional role of women at the time and instead is in love with writing and her ambition to be a novelist. There is of course romance in the book but the most important relationship is that of the sisters and their mother. It is a comforting and sweet novel that shows the power of women and their role in society.
4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Gone Girl became a huge hit in the last few years and a really great film adaption was made in 2014. It is the story of Nick and Amy Dunne and their twisted marriage. It is a fantastic thriller with a great twist which by now most people probably know. Amy Dunne is not a likeable character. She is twisted, cruel and manipulative. However she is also powerful, clever and strong. She is the instigator and puppet master of the whole book and is never a victim. Too often in thrillers women are the victims or merely used as a plot device. In Gone Girl, Amy is the strong one and her slightly pathetic husband Nick is the one constantly playing catch up. In all honesty none of the characters in Gone Girl are likeable but the women in the book are certainly not weak.
5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief is my favourite book of all time and I will use any excuse to recommend it! It follows Liesel as she arrives at the home of her new foster parents and their experience of living in Nazi Germany during World War Two. The family end up harbouring a Jewish boxer in their home and the book is also a love letter to the written word. Liesel steals books that the Nazi party wishes to destroy. The Book Thief is such a beautifully written book and Liesel is such a strong young woman whose determination and strength is shown throughout the whole novel. She is a character so full of kindness and warmth and that is why it is on this list.
6. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Rebecca is the classic novel about the new wife of Max De Winter, who comes to live in his extravagant estate named Manderley. She then realises that the shadow of his former wife Rebecca is going to be a constant in her life. The reader is never told the name of the narrator as the overpowering presence of Rebecca is so strong. The character of Mrs De Winter is not particularly powerful, in fact she is mostly a meek and submissive character. The powerful woman in this novel is quite clearly Rebecca herself. Although she never once appears in the book her persona is all over it. It is such a creepy and atmospheric novel about the impact a strong woman can have even if they are no longer present.
7. The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
The Neapolitan novels are a series of books translated from Italian exceptionally well by Ann Goldstein. They are written by the mysterious Italian author Elena Ferrante. The books follow the friendship between two girls living in Naples named Lila and Lenù. It follows them throughout pretty much their whole lives and is a stunning set of novels. These books were unlike anything else I’ve ever read. They are so real and gritty and written so beautifully. The books never shy away from showing the women’s faults and mistakes and they are a simply heartbreaking look at the endless complexities of female friendship.
8. The Harry Potter Series by JK Rowling
I adore Harry Potter. I read the first book when I was around ten years old and eagerly anticipated the release of every single new instalment. Harry Potter is full of powerful female characters from Hermione Granger to Bellatrix Lestrange to Molly Weasley. I won’t summarise the plot as I think most people are familiar with it. The female characters in Harry Potter are every bit as powerful as the male ones, and frequently more so. Hermione is strong and highly intelligent and an iconic character in literature. JK Rowling is so fantastic at creating different and complex female characters who are always more than they seem.
9. The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins
I don’t read a great deal of Young Adult fiction but The Hunger Games was so hugely popular that I decided to give it a try. It is the story of a girl named Katniss Everdeen who takes her sisters place in a series of games held by the government where young people battle each other to the death and one winner emerges. As the novels move forward it becomes a tale of a rebellion against the Government which becomes an all out war. Katniss is the epitome of strength, she consistently rescues her male love interests and is never seen as less powerful or important because she is a woman. The books are fast paced and well written. Although I think the story loses some intensity and rushes a little in the last book, they are still iconic and full of powerful female characters.
10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is a classic of literature and a feminist icon. It is also one of my favourite ever novels. It is the story of the titular Jane’s childhood and later her life as a young working woman. Jane goes to work as a governess for the ward of the enigmatic Mr Rochester. It is a beautifully written gothic novel and Jane is such a quietly powerful woman. She is understated and not outgoing but she is never anything less than strong and true to herself. Rochester is at times an arrogant and intimidating man but Jane is always a match for him and I think the book is ahead of its time with its portrayal of a strong, feminist woman who is intelligent and more than equal to any man.